Home > International politics, Islam, Religion, United States > You better believe it

You better believe it

Some days I feel I’m living in one huge place of worship—church, mosque, synagogue, revival mega tent—under the watchful and angry eye of the relevant keeper of the faith—bishop, imam, rabbi, pastor, what have you. The intolerant, judgmental blather is more than a permanent irritation, it occasionally infuriates me. What’s wrong with you people ? Do your thing and leave me—and public discourse—out of it. I don’t want to hear about your outrage or your latest cause—at present the Obama administration’s correct decision to have Catholic institutions pay for health insurance for sterilization and contraception of employees. Hearing the howls, you’d think the president and his cabinet are personally tearing fetuses and newborns to pieces and feeding them to the dogs. The worse aspect of the inflated religiosity of our times is that no one ever bothers to listen to what is actually being said. In this case, one word, “contraception,” is enough to make everyone run to the nearest soapbox and start ranting. Who will dare raise questions about the implications of various institutions or organizations deciding that this law or that principle doesn’t apply to them?

It is one of the great misfortunes of our present world, which certainly has more than its share, to fall prey to an irrationality that trumps logic, thought, and the common good. More than 350 years after enlightenment swept the Western world—if one considers enlightenment to start with Spinoza—we are falling back into the worse kind of fanaticism. Everywhere you look, the faithful are foaming at the mouth and denouncing something or someone. From Iranian prisons where torture is practiced in the name of Allah to the southern revivalists or the Mormons who dismiss the world’s millions-of-years of existence as balderdash to Indian nationalists to orthodox Israeli settlers, it’s the same story of extremism and intolerance.

Over the last century, secularism and separation of state and church (church in the wider sense of religious institution) seemed to gradually become the norm in the West and even in the developing world—Turkey, Egypt and Syria were good examples. This was not a new concept. Christ, if I have my Scriptures right, made a clear distinction between state and church when he said: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things which are God’s.” When did we decide this no longer applies? Where does this reversal come from? Our increasing sense of insecurity, our lives more complicated by the day, our fear of an unknown future (though I’m not sure Torquemada saw the future or afterlife more clearly than Voltaire), who knows… Whatever the reason, religious belief started becoming the law of the land, including here, in the United States, despite the fact that our unorthodox Founding Fathers wanted a country where church and state were two different and separate concepts. Now, in this same nation where, in 1948, some ayatollah added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, presidential hopefuls are judged (I’m tempted to say only) by the demonstrated strength of their religious belief and cast aside, no matter how qualified, if they refuse to talk about it. Remember Bill Bradley?

It’s not that I mind religious belief, that would be absurd. As a matter of fact, I profoundly admire true spirituality, that elusive and rare manifestation of our better selves. (The sublime French film “Of Gods and Men” a couple of years ago was one instance.) But please, keep your faith to yourself or to your place of worship. And don’t ever, ever, try to impress on me your certainty that you possess the only truth—no one does. Faith goes wrong when it invades the public sphere and legislation. And it goes even more wrong when believers are allowed all the leeway in the world and when they stridently demand and obtain respect, while skeptics or agnostics or people who simply don’t think much about these questions are looked upon with pity until, one day, they are considered the enemy.

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  1. KOGrady
    February 2, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    Thank you for raising this very important topic, and presenting it so well!

  2. MB
    February 2, 2012 at 6:21 pm

    You make your views clear. People feel strongly about the issue of God/religion whether they are agnostics, atheists, believers. To each one, I would ask, “How’s that working for you?”

  3. February 2, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    Exactly. (Though I’d say agnostics mostly see the issue as irrelevant.)

  4. Melinda Barnhardt
    February 3, 2012 at 3:37 am

    Thanks for this very well-expressed piece. The irrationality referenced no doubt results from an inability to live with paradox and ambiguity — but both of these are needed for growth.

  5. February 16, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    Amen (no pun intended..)! Superbly well said, Saideh.

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